In May 1593 the bubonic plague raged throughout London yet again, killing thousands. The novelist and playwright Thomas Nashe had written a play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, just six months earlier, which mentioned the plague and its destructive effects in a well known song:
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys…
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair…
Swords may not fight with fate;
Earth still holds ope her gate…
Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness…
It was a song oddly prescient about Nashe’s good friend Christopher Marlowe.
• • •
There are some striking parallels to what happened to Marlowe in 1593 in the 1927 story by Ernest Hemingway, filmed in 1946 by Robert Siodmak, The Killers. In that story, a man who had been involved with gangsters in an earlier period of his life and whom, they thought, had betrayed them, is visited by two assassins who come to the small town where he is hiding out. They will kill him, to keep his mouth shut. The man feels he can do nothing about it, and has to learn to accept his fate. The main difference in Marlowe’s story is that he probably didn’t accept his fate so docilely.
The long goodbye
The famous poet Christopher Marlowe (Elizabethan spelling Marlow or Marley) died aged 29 on 30 May 1593 at Deptford, a naval town about three miles from the centre of London. He was then, and is still now, among the greatest poets who have ever lived, an estimation based on his work in the six years before he died. His death has long been seen as a murder by many investigators. Marlowe’s death is thought to have something to do with an earlier period in the poet’s life, at Cambridge University from 1584 to 1587 (aged 19 to 23), when he may have acted as a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, then Queen Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary. The instability of Elizabeth’s early reign, threatened by both the Pope and Catholic Spain, certainly caused a close watch to be kept on English Catholics, and, taken in conjunction with evidence for Marlowe’s movements in the 80s and the scale of his expenditure then, make it likely he was indeed a spy for Walsingham.
In the intervening six year period Marlowe had earned his Master of Arts from Cambridge, and had produced six hugely popular plays in partnership with Edward Alleyn, actor and leader of the Admiral’s Men troupe of players (later Lord Strange’s Men). Marlowe had become one of the most famous men in London, popular with the play going public, execrated by the Puritan divines, and admired by and influential with other writers.
On 20 May 1593 Marlowe was arraigned by the Privy Council for questioning over some seditious and inflammatory verses smeared on public buildings. Marlowe turned up as requested at the court at Greenwich, which was near Deptford, apparently without any qualms, probably convinced he could easily clear his name. In fact the verses were obviously written by a group of dissatisfied tradesmen and the summons to Marlowe a rather odd procedure. The Privy Council was not sitting on the day specified to Marlowe to attend it, another oddity. Instead he was asked to make himself available as needed and not to leave the country. This was not an acquittal, not a charge, not even a form of house arrest. It was conceivably a pretense, and maybe a death sentence.
Ten days later Marlowe was at Deptford, at a lodging house with three companions (or perhaps warders). These were Ingram Frizer, business manager to Thomas Walsingham (a cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham the spymaster); Nicholas Skeres, at the time an employee of the Earl of Essex; and Robert Poley, a professional spy in the James Bond mould, charming, devious and lethal. Marlowe knew all three. We don’t know how long these men had been together. Could it have been as long a period as ten days? The three men, and Marlowe, were all at times employees of Thomas Walsingham, who had been and was to later be Marlowe’s patron, publishing his last work, Hero and Leander, after Marlowe’s death. All four, and Thomas Walsingham himself, had been spies for Sir Francis it is thought. Marlowe probably did not like any of his three companions at Deptford, all men best described as thugs or gangsters, all with criminal records.
Walsingham had a house in Chizlehurst, where Marlowe had stayed earlier that month. The court (and Privy Council) was at Greenwich Palace, scarcely a mile from Deptford (and four miles from Chizlehurst), fleeing the plague in London. One could quite reasonably ask why Marlowe was not staying at his employer Walsingham’s house nor at a public inn, but in a lodging house in Deptford. Was this to distance Walsingham from what was about to happen to Marlowe? Was it to ensure Danby, the Queen’s Coroner, heard the case after Marlowe’s death (it was then within his jurisdiction), a man trusted to come to the desired conclusion about it?
The lodging house was run by the widow of a local notable, Eleanor Bull, a place where private rooms could be had for private business. There was a scuffle at the house, ostensibly over payment of the bill. At the subsequent investigation Frizer described what happened in some detail. He was sitting with Skeres and Poley on either side of him on a bench facing a table, all three facing away from Marlowe, who was lying on a bed further back in the room. Frizer and his two cronies were playing, probably at dice. Marlowe became offended at something that was said, and attacked Frizer from behind with Frizer’s knife, inflicting two minor scalp wounds. Frizer turned, hampered by those trapping him in place on the bench, and tried to free his arm to catch or deflect the knife. Still sitting, he succeeded in turning Marlowe’s arm 180 degrees back towards him, then pushed the knife towards Marlowe, the blade penetrating the eye socket and lodging several centimeters in the brain. Death was instantaneous. Frizer pleaded self defense, and was immediately acquitted. The body was examined by the coroner’s surgeon, identified, cause of death certified, and buried in an unmarked grave, for all Marlowe’s fame. His friends and family were not informed of his death. No questions were asked.
What would Hercule Poirot make of this story? Nobody, then or now, has queried the story of the fight over the bill, or noted how unlikely it is, given that Frizer declared himself the host to the others and thus responsible for the bill, and given the small sum involved; and how convenient as an excuse for the killers, whose story it of course is. Reconstruct the crime as you may, try to act it out, the movements described seem false. The position of the four men suggests not a group of friends, but a prisoner trying to escape the constraints of his three warders. That Marlowe used Frizer’s knife for the attack suggests his own knife had been taken from him. That the three were facing away from Marlowe is immediately suspect, as it bolsters the plea of self defense. Perhaps they were waiting for such an escape attempt, to use as an excuse. Attacked by a knife wielding assailant, the natural action is to lean away to one side, not turn around, perhaps to meet a further knife blow. With arms trapped by companions sitting on either side, it would have been difficult, and slow, to free an arm to ward off the blow. But if Frizer had succeeded, he would just have had sufficient reach to deflect the blade. It would have been impossible in that position to drive the blade several centimetres into Marlowe’s skull unless his arms were twice as long as normal. Why did the two other men not intervene?
So Frizer lied, and perjured himself. He did so to plead self defense. Another possible and more likely explanation of these events is that the killing was assassination. The blow described is consistent with Frizer, standing in front of Marlowe, who was held on either side by Poley and Skeres, driving the knife into his eye with sufficient force to kill him (although any of the three men may have struck the blow). The action, and the blow, would have been planned and premeditated with a view of the pleading of self defense and the giving of the cover story. Two shallow cuts to Frizer’s head could have been made by his companions to add verisimilitude to his story. Comments made later to discredit Marlowe that he died swearing might have originated in a servant hearing a muffled cry for help.
Fame and reputation
Marlowe’s reputation is a crucial part of this story of his death, and can be used to explain it.
The first we hear about Marlowe is as a student. He was a shoemaker’s son and a gifted student, and won scholarships that paid for his education at school and university. His teachers were likely well pleased, and he progressed through his studies with ease.
While at university Marlowe began to write, and immediately was at the forefront of Elizabethan literature, producing translations, poems and plays that won the admiration of all who read them, and do to this day.
There was a suspicion against him in 1587: about to receive his Master of Arts degree from Cambridge, the university demurred, alleging Marlowe had defected to the Catholic cause, which made him virtually a traitor, and ineligible for the award. Elizabeth’s Privy Council intervened. Someone on it was impressed with Marlowe. Imagine the Prime Minister writing to the university Chancellor insisting a student be awarded his degree, as he has performed good service to his country (not the usual way one speaks of a spy by the way; these are usually well hidden).
Then Marlowe moved to London and went into partnership with the leading actor of the day, Edward Alleyn. Together over the next six years they produced six plays that were hits, and both had become famous, and likely wealthy. Marlowe was even more widely admired than ever. His plays also exhibit evidence of his considerable learning.
In 1592 the plague struck again, and the theatres were closed. The ministers of religion, many of them Puritans, preached it was the sinful plays that had caused god to punish the people by sending the plague. Marlowe was mentioned, and his infamous protagonists, the Jew of Malta, Faustus and Tamburlane.
We know something about one such accuser of Marlowe, the preacher Gabriel Harvey, an acquaintance of both Marlowe and Thomas Greene from Cambridge. Harvey stands revealed in his writings as a mean spirited, vicious and hypocritical prig, the very image of what Jesus in the gospel called a “whitened sepulchre”. Neither Greene nor Marlowe liked Harvey (he seems like a man hard to like). They may well have baited him, come out with stories of seeing the devil, or scoffing at the scripture Harvey so glibly mouthed, for the satisfaction of seeing him react like a choking goose. Harvey in turn thought up every charge he could think of against both Marlowe and Greene, including atheism. Biographers tend to think there was something in the atheism charges. I think they originated in Marlowe’s intolerance of hypocrisy.
In what follows about ‘atheism’ (ie non conformity to the Church of England’s doctrine), which at times reaches the dimension of hysteria, it is well to remember the thousands dying everywhere that no doctor could cure. All we know about Marlowe’s ‘atheism’ and other faults for sure was taken from his plays, the only documents he himself left behind him. Other sources are suspect, as will appear. Those plays had all been licensed for performance by the Master of Revels, and certified to be free of blasphemy and sedition. But there is no arguing with hysteria.
To put this in context, it should be remembered that just sixty years before Marlowe’s death, Erasmus had been harshly criticised for making a critical new edition and translation of the bible. Neither the Pope (too far) nor Luther (not far enough) was satisfied with what he had done. In retrospect, the work of critical translation was the birth of biblical textual criticism, and led to widespread unrest at the Catholic Church’s perceived abuse of the role of interpreter of the bible. Earlier translators of the bible into English, such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, had been regarded as heretics. Tyndale had been burnt at the stake, Wycliffe’s body exhumed and burnt. The Reformation was still underway, and with it the breakup of the Pope’s European wide empire. In Rome’s defense Philip of Spain had sent the Great Armada to conquer England and bring it back within the papal fold, just five years before Marlowe’s death. These were the burning issues of the day. Erasmus, Luther, Henry VIII, Wycliffe: all atheists, to some minds. As always, the most vociferous were the extremists, including the fundamentalists.
In 1593 someone wanted to take out Christopher Marlowe. He was to die accidentally, in a brawl. But he hadn’t a reputation at that stage as a drinker or brawler, but as a scholar and poet, so his name had to be blackened. The sermons preached against the theatres were ransacked for references to Marlowe. Most spoke only of the matter in his plays, but this was now alleged to be Marlowe’s own opinion.
One could ransack Marlowe’s plays and come up with plentiful material showing his piety instead, but no-one, in his day or later, has thought to do so. It only takes a reading of Edward II rather than Tamburlane. But gossip sticks like thrown mud.
Someone was willing to pay informers, who earned their living by giving evidence against persons charged with crimes, and disbursed sums to acquire such ‘evidence’. Where did the money for this activity come from?
Someone required the courts to ‘question’ witnesses, applying torture until they said what they were told to say. Several depositions were taken in this way. Who had command or influence with the civil authorities to make them act this way?
There are two statements extant concerning so-called atheistical opinions implicating Marlowe. One concerns Marlowe directly: it is an accusation. The other is an accusation of another person. Both are identical. This is government issue accusation, manufactured evidence to trap someone the government wants got rid of, or an excuse after the event. The opinions quoted as Marlowe’s, alleging the falseness of scripture, the likelihood that Jesus and others mentioned in the gospels were homosexuals, and that homosexuality itself was not a sin, were the brainchild of an informer called Richard Cholmeley, who probably invented them as a plant to use in his role as a secret service agent provocateur. But Cholmeley himself was tortured and imprisoned for the writing of these opinions, and a copy made by another informer named Richard Baines, who then attributed them to Marlowe. All subsequent mentions of Marlowe’s atheism are based on this one dubious text, including the ‘confession’ extorted from Thomas Kyd by torture. Kyd would have had each charge read to him, and tortured until he replied ‘yes!’ to the question, ‘did Marlowe say this?’. This is the only evidence of Marlowe’s atheism, as distinct from that expressed in his plays as part of a dramatic situation, and is certainly not about Marlowe at all.
Quite suddenly Marlowe became a low life. Not a learned scholar, great poet and successful businessman, but an atheist, a homosexual, a drunkard and a brawler. This was likely the story Marlowe’s companions on the day of his death gave to explain why he died. This was the story that spread. Marlowe’s friends, those who mentioned him after his death, are very circumspect. They know there are powerful interests wanting the matter closed, dismissed. No-one suggested there had been a frameup. No-one wanted to be tortured like Marlowe’s friend Thomas Kyd. And the story about the drunkard, homosexual, atheistical brawler was repeated by his enemies, and has survived to this day.
It’s a good story. But it’s false. It was invented to justify Marlowe’s murder, to excuse it, disguise it. Who would need such an excuse?
One could equally plausibly ‘prove’ that William Shakespeare was a mass murderer, by taking scenes and speeches from his play Titus Andronicus, paying an informer to repeat a required testimony, and have one of the actors in the Chamberlain’s Men tortured to ‘confess’ Shakespeare also bathed in murdered men’s blood on the night of the full moon, witness his knowledge of witchcraft as in his play Macbeth.
We should keep in mind two Elizabethan assumptions we don’t share today.
1. Elizabethans didn’t understand dramatic characterisation. The drama was new to them, and what a character in a play said was often assumed to be voicing the author’s own opinion.
2. Interest in science was assumed then to be a challenge to biblical scripture. The Elizabethans were in that sense fundamentalists. To look at the heavens through a telescope was to defy the book of Genesis. So those with that kind of interest were assumed to be atheists.
So were followers of other faiths: both Church of England and Catholic writers referred to members of each other’s faith as atheists. Atheists in turn were execrated for all kinds of sinful behaviour: devil worship, sexual intercourse with the devil, buggery, homosexuality, treason etc.
We know independently that Marlowe was involved earlier in a street fight, and there showed himself an excellent swordsman, but was mainly concerned in that affray to help a friend, Thomas Watson the poet, who was being attacked by a man called Bradley, a notorious brawler who owed money to Watson’s brother in law. Marlowe held Bradley at bay, who then turned and attacked Watson and in the fray received a fatal sword thrust.
Other than that, we know Marlowe to have been a brilliant student at school and university, a highly disciplined and productive writer, an extremely learned man, and one admired by most who knew him, including Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. The stories detrimental to Marlowe’s character more closely describe the usual companions of Frizer and his friends. Slanders tend to be repeated, but perhaps we should read them with this context in mind.
Those who believe that there’s no smoke without fire are giving the opinion that people will always prefer to test and analyse such ‘evidence’ rather than just pass it on to the next person. I’ve never met anyone yet who did that.
Marlowe’s murder had to be covered up. The first step was a rigged inquest, where the coroner accepted a blatantly false story without further enquiry. The second step was to disguise it as the deserved end of a blasphemous, drunken scoundrel not worth a second look.
The cover up
Frizer’s story was accepted by the investigating coroner without question. The coroner ignored the problem of Frizer’s long arms which enabled him to kill a man while sitting down. This sounds as though the coroner was told by someone of influence to acquit Frizer. Of note is that this was the Queen’s coroner, an official of the court from nearby Greenwich Palace, whose career would have been dependent on the approval of the Privy Council. Questions the coroner did not ask were: what was Marlowe doing at Deptford; was he a witness to a sedition enquiry or charged with any crime under that investigation; was he a free agent there or under constraint by his companions; was he of good character; were the men who killed him; did anyone at the lodging house see or hear anything suspicious; was there really a dispute over the bill. It was a strangely rushed hearing. Had the coroner been told what conclusions to come to beforehand? Who could have done that?
Who more likely than Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron. Or the Earl of Essex on the Privy Council. But why?
The coroner’s court was in the same position as the commission investigating President Kennedy’s murder in 1963, when told that the trajectory of the shot that shattered the President’s skull was inconsistent with that from the position in which Lee Harvey Oswald was said to have fired. In both cases there was a covering story, with in each case a fatal flaw to it. But in both cases there was influence bought to bear that this was the story that was going to be accepted. Not to do so would have all kinds of unpleasant consequences.
Marlowe was in good repute with most people at the time of his death. He must have felt very secure. Not only a famous and admired public figure, he was a successful business associate of the era’s most admired actor Edward Alleyn; the Privy Council six years previously had unprecedently intervened with the Cambridge University authorities to clear his name from the taint of Catholicism and ensure his degree was awarded; the Walsingham family had employed him in matters of national security, and patronised him as a poet; he had earned the good opinion of Sir Walter Raleigh; even the persecuted Catholic faction who may have suffered from his activities as a spy refrained from any protests.
The sole attack Marlowe suffered was from those Puritans incensed at the scientific ideas associated with the circle of Sir Walter Raleigh, and with the ‘sinful’ playhouses. Raleigh was, off and on, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, and it was a lot easier to attack members of his circle, among which Marlowe was counted. The standard charges were made as for all of Raleigh’s circle: tobacco smoking, atheism, homosexuality. Men were found who were willing to swear, for a price, Marlowe had voiced atheistical opinions, or swore, under torture, these charges were true. One of these latter was Thomas Kyd, a friend of Marlowe, author of the era’s most successful play The Spanish Tragedy, who repeated the text of the charges made by Richard Baines mentioned above. Men will say anything if the torture is severe enough. In Kyd’s case the torture was severe enough to lead to his death a few months later. It was an obvious frameup, and a pretty inept one.
Marlowe had been a spy, and a double agent in the period 1585-87. He had posed as on one side but reported his findings to the other. Was he a Catholic, atheist, homosexual, traitor then? Or reporting activities of these groups to an employer? Was he privy to state secrets he might incautiously reveal? Marlowe’s knowledge would have made it impossible to give him up to his Puritan opponents, who were aiming more at Raleigh in any case. Arrested, he might have been put to the torture. Tortured, he may have revealed inconvenient and embarrassing information. Yet such a well known man could not be put out of the way so easily. As well, it was known he was an excellent swordsman, able to hold his own in a brawl. A scenario had to be concocted in which a verdict of accidental death could be returned.
But why sacrifice Marlowe at all to the Puritan opponents of science, theatre, dancing and other enjoyments? Perhaps a wider scope is called for to see the answer, a look at the court of Elizabeth. Who had to gain from Marlowe’s death?
It is unlikely the murder had anything to do with Marlowe’s espionage activities. He had been an informer about Catholic activities six years before. Since then he had become too famous to work undercover. But he did know spies: it is the usual suspects, Walsingham, Poley, Skeres and Frizer. Espionage probably doesn’t serve any really useful purpose, but it does give employment to many thieves and killers who otherwise would be out killing and stealing from innocent bystanders. Spies usually invent most security scares to give themselves employment, right to the top government levels, just like civil servants. So for those who were interested in Marlowe’s death and didn’t believe the drunken quarrel and accidental stabbing story, a murky cloak about Catholic invasion and takeover was wrapped around the affair. Perhaps one side or the other had Marlowe killed, who knows?
In fact the affair causing his death started out as astute diplomacy on the Earl of Essex’s part and had it succeeded would have rebounded to his credit. But it didn’t succeed, and while desperately covering his tracks Essex got rid of those he couldn’t fully trust.
The Queen and the hive
At that court at this time, the early 90s, three factions fought it out. William Cecil and his son Robert were the Queen’s principal advisors; Sir Walter Raleigh had been her favourite courtier; and Robert Devereux Earl of Essex was the new favourite. Elizabeth kept all three dominated by sheer personality, countering one against the other. All three, and many other of her court, threatened her sovereignty, but Elizabeth remained firmly in command.
Cecil, Raleigh and Essex were aristocrats, men who had been trained from infancy in the belief they were born to rule others, that the only acceptable attitude of others to their selves was subservience. Earlier reigns, of Edward and Mary, had seen long periods of aristocratic control of the state, and Elizabeth would not allow that situation to reoccur. The favourites tended to be in and out of favour, some action or another earning them the Queen’s displeasure.
All three of these men had large groups of retainers, and alliances with other influential families. They exercised patronage where it would do them most honour. They sought consequently for glory in exchange for the exercise of any real power, which the Queen would not allow.
William Cecil was the most secure. He had been the Queen’s principal and trusted advisor for most of her reign, having survived the unstable two earlier reigns by the skin of his teeth. Now Lord Burghley, he had become ill, and in 1592 withdrew from public office quite suddenly. He may have suffered a stroke. His son Robert, later Earl of Salisbury, stepped into his shoes, but the Cecil faction had rocked in its hold on power at the end of 1592, giving opportunity to other factions to take over, or think they could take over. William died in 1598. His son Robert, a protege of the former spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, became Secretary of State. He was bitterly opposed to Essex, and the two men were deadly enemies.
Sir Walter Raleigh, older by 10 years than Essex or Robert Cecil, had suffered extreme ups and downs of favour since his arrival at court. Physically imposing and gifted as a soldier, a poet and a scholar, he had been knighted by Elizabeth in 1585, but lost prestige when his under resourced efforts to plant a colony in America met with failure. It may have been unreasonable of Elizabeth to expect a private individual to resource a new colony, but Raleigh did lose prestige in the effort. In 1591 Raleigh fell from favour completely when the Queen discovered he had secretly married one of her Maids of Honour, which she choose to regard as an infringement of her royal prerogative, and she may have been right. Raleigh had withdrawn to his country estate, where he kept a low profile. He still exercised considerable patronage, and had assisted in the publication of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene in 1590, gave support to the researches of Thomas Harriot, his technical advisor in the colonisation attempt in America, and may have met with and exchanged poems and opinions with Christopher Marlowe, whose learning and poetical ability he must have respected.
As a young man Essex had found favour with the Queen, succeeding Raleigh in 1587 as the most regarded of her courtiers. But from 1589 he began a rash series of episodes in which he disobeyed the Queen’s instructions, ignored her advice, rebuked her in public ungraciously, and on one occasion almost drew his sword as though to strike her. After conducting a campaign in France in 1592 and the Irish war in 1599, both with singular ineptitude, Essex fell from power altogether when Raleigh and Cecil combined against him, and in 1601 he made an inept rebellion which was aborted, but led to his execution for treason. Affected by his fall were his supporters. These at one time or another had included Thomas Walsingham, Sir Philip Sidney, Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton, Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, and Francis Bacon. And his clients, who had included Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare, patronised by Southampton, Thomas Watson, and Christopher Marlowe, patronised by Walsingham.
The power struggle made for very unstable conditions, and leaders and followers both jockeyed for best position virtually from moment to moment. In 1592 it seemed Raleigh was out of the game. The Cecil faction had lost the reassuring presence of William, familiar to the Queen. His son Robert quickly regained any loss of power. For a short while there was an opportunity for Essex to use his position on the Privy Council to control the state, push Elizabeth aside, and recover the loss of face his military ineptitude in France had bought him. At that time he probably commanded the allegiance of Walsingham, Skeres, Poley and Frizer. And he may have committed the same indiscretion he later did in 1599, writing treacherous correspondence to James VI of Scotland. Essex was a rash, foolhardy man. What if he had suggested to Christopher Marlowe he carry these letters?
The deposition extracted from Thomas Kyd under torture was largely made up of alleged instances of Marlowe’s atheism. None of it is very convincing, and Kyd is saying what his questioners want to hear. But Kyd does mention also that Marlowe told him he was intending to go to Scotland, and that other men of standing were going there too. This could be a reference to the intrigue with King James about the English succession. The time of this intrigue was probably early in 1593.
A few months later the position had changed radically. Thomas Cecil was firmly in control, of Elizabeth’s confidence and of the Privy Council both, and was dedicated to ousting Essex. Essex had made a shambles of his military campaign, and could not afford anything incriminating to be revealed about him, at risk to his life. Mouths had to be stopped. Marlowe’s was one of them. Essex’s supporters moved to anticipate his wishes.
Perhaps as a consequence of the murder, perhaps as an effect of his disgraceful conduct of the Irish war, Essex lost supporters, including Walsingham, Skeres, Poley and Frizer, some of whom moved to the Cecil camp. By the time he made his abortive attempt at a coup Essex was fatally isolated, and failed, yet again.
So it is likely Essex had Marlowe murdered. He was arrogant and rash enough to have a famous poet put out of the way. He was foolhardy enough to toy with treason while the Queen was still alive. He was inept enough to have bungled the attempt, choosing a time when he was temporarily, very temporarily, in the ascendant on the Privy Council, chosen the wrong man for the mission, then retreated in confusion when his power was taken from him by Thomas Cecil. Of course all he had to do was sigh impatiently when Marlowe’s name was mentioned. One of his dependents would have understood and arranged things for him, probably by suggesting to Thomas Walsingham it would be to his advantage to take care of the matter. Walsingham liked Marlowe, but liked his worldly advancement better. Walsingham in turn engaged Poley, a known assassin, for the job, and used his man Frizer as the contact. Essex’s man Skeres was there to see all went as planned, smooth any problems with the coroner, and report back to Essex.
“men have died, but not for love”
Someone very aware of what was going on would have been Southampton, a close friend of Essex and a fellow rebel. And Southampton’s client Shakespeare. It may have been at this time Shakespeare experienced the extreme revulsion he expressed to the Essex faction in his Sonnets. Had be learned the men who were patonising him had killed Marlowe, a man he idolised, his reaction would have been of disgust and revulsion. There has been no other person more able to understand the achievement of Christopher Marlowe than William Shakespeare. Perhaps here is the real reason for his return to the theatre.
Marlowe had created a new, exuberant style, ambitious, exultant, hard to read without being swept off your feet. He was developing in enormous leaps and bounds as a dramatist at the time of his death. One imagines the man was like that. But behind the surging rhythms is an astonishing command of stress, assonance, vocabulary, a matter of deep understanding of language, and considerable labour of composition. One imagines the man was like that too. One man could match him, but none ever excelled him. And few understood his achievement, which, as Touchstone says, was the real tragedy.
Bits and pieces
The above was written in tribute to those who believe Marlowe faked his death, he or Bacon or Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare, the US landing on the moon was made in a TV studio, and that the earth is really flat. What we need urgently is more imagination, different ways to see, and these groups provide this. I make my contribution with the above fantasy. There might be a good novel in it. I’m just a general reader trying a theory.
A note about “who wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare?” Why do so many who discuss this, in fact, why do all who discuss this, never refer to the actual plays or poems of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Oxford or the writings of Francis Bacon except in a cryptographic exercise? The discussion is always about minutiae of biographical information which ‘proves’ the point the author is making. It is as though the work itself is not important. The matter has been reduced to a detective puzzle. Yet reading the plays, poems and philosophical works of these writers reveals distinct characteristics of each one. Like the test given to winemakers, it would be hard to fool an expert on Elizabethan literature given an unascribed extract from each man’s work as to whom had written it. There is no mistaking the writings of Shakespeare from those of Marlowe, let alone Oxford, or most certainly, Bacon. Each was a distinct and vivid personality.
I wonder why it is only the work of Shakespeare that is written by someone else. Why wasn’t the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh written by someone else? Or the fiction and plays of Thomas Nashe? Surely George Eliot didn’t write her own novels? Why pick on Shakespeare in this way when all of literature is available? And all of history. Was Adolf Hitler really Adolf Hitler? It’s a big field to explore.
Some of these points made about Marlowe’s death were made by George Garrett (Entered from the Sun, Doubleday 1990) or rather implied indirectly, it is an indirect book. It is about Marlowe’s death, but not much about it. Charles Nicholl has written one of the greatest detective stories ever about the murder of Marlowe (with an enormous digression about Elizabethan espionage), only excelled by his book about Shakespeare, which made examining Elizabethan sources exciting, and first sparked my interest way back in 2008 (The Reckoning, Vintage Books rev. edn. 2002; The Lodger, Allen Lane 2007). Charles Norman’s biography (The Muses’ Darling, The Falcon Press 1947) reprints all surviving Elizabethan documents about Marlowe and has the merit of quoting extensively from his plays, thus reminding us just why we are interested in Marlowe and his death.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.